Backbreaker

It seems to me that many games developers nowadays work hard to perfect one or or two levels of agency - most often the input level or the narrative level. And again the developers agency is often felt too strongly in this, too often the decisions that the player makes are next to meaningless. When confronted with an enemy your “choice” as a player is to shoot and kill or the be shot and die. At most you may select your weapon, and if you’re very lucky you may select an angle of attack.

When I examine my recent most played games, I see how levels of agency influences my enjoyment. The game I keep going back to like a bad habit at the moment is the least likely candidate - I’m an Australian with little to no experience with American Grid Iron besides various Hollywood movies but my current favourite game is Backbreaker. Hear me out.

'Merkin Footbaw is itself already a sport with interesting and meaningful choices at various levels of play. Your roster can be tuned for various styles of offense or defense, you choose formation and plan of attack with each individual play, and once the play begins you make momentary choices as a player between different receivers for a passing play or different paths for a running play.

Add to that the fact that Backbreaker is built on the Euphoria engine and features physics enabled tackles, meaning that spectacular things sometimes just happen either incidentally or due to your choices in the best spirit of the sandbox. Add again the unique (for sports games) over-the-shoulder action gamer view that gives you tunnel vision when you’re lining up a pass which to me adds a great deal of realism.

All in all it’s incredibly satisfying.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Firstly, this is an incomplete review of Rick Riordan’s acclaimed tween fantasy series. So far I’ve churned through two of the five books in fairly short order, and I feel I’ve read enough to have formed some solid opinions about the work. If anything pressing arises from the remaining stories I will be sure to update this blog. It’s impossible to find a review of this body of work that doesn’t reference Harry Potter so I’ll get my licks in quick and run away to safer terrain. Frankly Harry Potter is, from my memory of reading only the first book several years ago, dreadful. There, I said it. I read it as the hype machine for the first film rose to crescendo and the book simply dissappointed. The world just seemed haphazard and the mythology sloppily constructed. Coincidentally, mythology is where Riordan shines. Which is unsurprising since the entire series is built on the premise that the Greek gods of antiquity didn’t simply vanish when they went out of fasion, they just changed addresses. It would have been an extra nice touch if the link had been made from the pagan pantheon to the Christian calendar of saints, but I guess that’s a little beyond the scope of a YA adventure series and it probably would have raised more questions than it answered. Enter Perseus Jackson, our modern day, well, Perseus. Yes the classic tradition of the gods impregnating mortal women continues, and our hero happens to be the son of Posiedon. It’s a juicy story hook with some nice modern extrapolation on the antique myths. For the most part, though, everything is fairly familiar to anyone who spent hours poring through books detailing precicely these same myths. Riordan does a great job incorporating the old with the new, but it’s clear that education trumped over most other concerns, and even where the depiction has altered in some way the alteration is generally explained. Yet while it would be easy to call this work derivative, somehow I’m really enjoying it. Concise descriptions leave plenty of room for imagination, and most situations are resolved within a short chapter so even when you know how this particular myth goes, the next one isn’t too far off, and may have a more original twist. There’s some real page momentum behind these stories. Furthermore the overarching plot of Percy vs the big bad evil remains a compelling enough mystery to ilicit a strong desire to open the next book just as you close the last one. My criticisms are few, but chief among them is that Riordan openly leaves his personal life and opinions on the page. Which is a difficult criticism to make - after all, it is his prerogative as creator and writer - but it’s a jarring break to my suspension of disbelief when an author who can describe the cannons mounted on a Confederate steamer cannot describe more than two games in an infinite arcade. An arcade which is, of course, a den of evil. It’s a fairly minor qualm in what is an excellent effort to recontextualise classic stories and make them engaging for a pre-early teen audience, without simply producing yet another non-fiction book about the era. As a 25 year old it’s the type of book I would have been all over 10 - 15 years ago, and I’m happy to read them now.

Wot I played 2009

In lieu of any sort of best of list for the year, some of the more memorable games I’ve played and why they might make a list of such things. No formal ordering because my tastes are many and varied, so most likely this will be in brain order.

Rock Band: Beatles and Rock Band 2

Turns out, I’m a sucker for fake plastic drums. The guitar element to me is all but vestigial and I rarely have any interest in singing, but in another life I was a percussionist and anything that brings me within spitting distance of that life brings me joy. Guitar Hero 5 should probably also get a mention for it’s party play friendliness but to be honest I haven’t clocked in nearly as many hours with the poppier half brother title.

Team Fortress 2

Serious kudos for the Valve team consistently reinventing the wheel here. TF2 is becoming the Madonna of videogames and is unlikely to ever get old thanks to the constant and consistent and fun updates. If other developers learn nothing else from Valve it’s that updates shouldn’t be announced in bullet points. A joy to jump in every so often and click to kill random strangers who wear a different colour to me. I’ll never be great at it but I’ll invariably have fun when I get on a rare roll and that’s definitely worth a mention.

Overlord series

I suspected I might like this but didn’t get it till it was on discount. A pretty fair call but I enjoyed it far more than I ever expected in strength of its writing and animation and not to mention surprisingly compelling gameplay.

Prototype

I occasionally forget the generic title of this hyperbolic deathsim so that’s as good a reason as any to get it on this list and make sure I remember that I did play it through to the end. It’s kinda sorta not a great game, but in a way I consider it an apex of the absurd upgrade system game design that’s getting more and more abstract and less and less interesting or clever. This is a game that allowed you to purchase abilities that required button combinations that simply weren’t feasible. What genius decided holding down the X and B buttons was ok? Anyway I’m hoping that the future will bring better examples of upgrading abilities. Crackdown did this very well. We seem to have gone backwards.

Torchlight

I actually haven’t played this through to any sort of ending and that kind of saddens me. To be honest the clickfest gameplay simply isn’t compelling enough to drive me further, and in fact I’ve never completed any game of this style despite fundamentally agreeing with the core loot-grind-skills concept. In practice it’s simply too exhausting, and doesn’t vary enough.

Borderlands

I enjoyed this game but didn’t love it to death. It seemed like it missed as many notes as it hit dead on. But yes, ultimately an enjoyable experience, and some of the best gaming conversation I’ve had this year was describing the crazy weapons I found.

Dragon Age: Origins

Playing the motherloving bajeezus out of this and it truly makes for one of the most breathtaking experiences of its kind. For the first time in a Bioware game I’m actually finding conversations difficult to navigate for moral reasons, and all without a moral slider to arbitrarily slip up and down! They’ve definitely made some great strides since Mass Effect, and if they carry on in this form for Mass Effect 2 I am so entirely there.

That’ll do for now, I’m sure I’ll have more to add later.

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